Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Wizard of Oz: American Faerie

For a long time, I’ve wondered if (and how) the creatures of faerie that resided in Europe could have made their way to American soil, where I live. Or is our soil already occupied by native sprites, whose voices and stories people like me (of European extraction) can’t easily catch on the wind?

Frank Baum made an effort to catch the wind of an American fairyland, to weave fresh American fairy tales, most famously The Wizard of Oz. This is, on its surface, a pretty simple book (as it should be): simple in language and straightforward in its telling. That’s not to say there aren’t unexpected and delightful turns. But the plot is easily followed. The characters have humorous incongruities, but not what I would consider great complexity. Like most (or perhaps all) European fairy tales, the narrator is “omniscient,” moving seamlessly into the perspective of any character most central to the current action. Like European fairy tales, this one has wild woods, witches, magic shoes, a magic hat, instructions that must be obeyed. Like European tales, it has just the right number of helpers and wishes to come out without any extras at the end.

But it also has distinctly American qualities. (The Library of Congress calls it “The first totally American fantasy for children.”) For instance, the places where magic happens are almost always wide open, not close and clustered forests. This setting is more typical of the American heartland. More importantly, maybe, it has newly-minted characters. The iconic Scarecrow, the ever-so-modern Tin Woodman, and that girl Dorothy in her pigtails, carrying her basket out of the house for a long walk. Oz, of course, the elfland version of that iconic American, the traveling charlatan and sideshow performer—with a good heart. Not surprisingly, he’s from our world (Omaha). And then the various peoples, like Munchkins and Winkies, who remind me a little of elves and dwarfs but aren’t. This feels like American innovation. Even the names of things have a fresh, non-traditional sound.

I wish I knew why this tale was and is so appealing. Maybe it’s Dorothy’s innocence—her goodness that prevails over all obstacles. Maybe it’s the freshness of Oz-land. Maybe Baum captured something, an American flavor of European folklore. Or maybe he was just a gifted storyteller, weaving surprises that his readers delight in.

Maybe one of you can solve the riddle for me.

At the end of the day, I’m not ready to pack up and find my way to Baum’s faerie. But plenty of Americans have been (witness this site, and this list of books, with full text!), and that’s quite a legacy.

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